In 'Selma,' British Actor Brings Outsider's Perspective To MLK : Code Switch David Oyelowo talks about playing Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oscar-nominated film Selma — as well as the LBJ controversy, slavery and how he learned about what it's like to be black in America.

In 'Selma,' British Actor Brings Outsider's Perspective To MLK

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"Selma" is the first major Hollywood production to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The actor who plays the American civil rights leader on screen is British, and we're going to learn more about him right now. His name is David Oyelowo. And NPR's Bilal Qureshi says that's a name you'll be hearing a lot in the future.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: At the recent Palm Springs Film Festival, actor Brad Pitt introduced the winner for Breakthrough Performance with this sing-along pronunciation guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF PALM SPRINGS FILM FESTIVAL)

BRAD PITT: (Singing) Oyel, Oyel, Oyelowo, Oyel-owo.

DAVID OYELOWO: Everything just went out of my head. All I could think is what a surreal moment to the point whereby they then called my name and I almost forgot to go on because I was laughing so hard. But yeah, the best PSA of my career for sure.

QURESHI: In just eight years in Hollywood, the British-Nigerian actor with the unfamiliar name has assembled an impressive portfolio of supporting roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Lincoln) What's your name, soldier?

OYELOWO: I'm Corporal Ira Clark, sir. Here with the Massachusetts Cavalry.

I played a Union soldier in "Lincoln" in 1865. I played an African-American fighter pilot in "Red Tails" in the 1940s. I played a preacher in "The Help" in 1964, and then I played the son of a butler going through the 20th century, being a Freedom Rider, in the sit-ins, a Black Panther and then a senator. And that 150 of what it is to be black as an American in this country really prepared me for playing Dr. King.

QURESHI: That performance in "Selma" has cemented his status as a leading man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Those that have gone before us say no more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) No more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard.

QURESHI: Oyelowo is a classically trained actor. And film critic Tim Cogshell says it shows.

TIM COGSHELL: This is a guy who had to play Henry IV for the role with the Shakespeare Company, and he took a lot of heat for that, you know, the first black actor to play that role. And he did it, and he silenced his detractors by being brilliant.

QURESHI: Roles on British television and in small films followed, but Oyelowo says he always had his eyes on a Hollywood career. So he moved his family to Los Angeles in 2007. And one of the first scripts he read was "Selma."

OYELOWO: This film started for me as a whisper. It started for me on the 24 of July, 2007, God telling me that I'm going to play this role in this film. Now, that may sound odd to people who aren't people of faith or just hearing that cold, but I knew that deeply in my spirit. And that's what kept me going.

QURESHI: The director of "Selma," Ava DuVernay, told NPR's Michele Norris that one of the reasons Oyelowo was the perfect actor for the role was precisely because he wasn't American.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVA DUVERNAY: The fact that he's British gave him a better in because he wasn't holding King up on a pedestal. He didn't have - grew up with the iconography of King. You know, in my home, my great-grandmother had a picture of King and Jesus on the wall at equal level, like it's just - there's just King and Jesus. That was it.

QURESHI: David Oyelowo didn't have that weight of history. His parents are Nigerian immigrants to Britain. And at one point the family moved back to Nigeria. Oyelowo says those years in Africa were formative.

OYELOWO: The truth of the matter is what living in the West unfortunately does for you as a black person is it engenders a minority mentality, whereas when I lived in Nigeria, the notion of the color of my skin, the notion of the opportunities afforded me as a result, never occurred to me. And it does affect how you bounce out of bed. It does affect your ambitions. It does affect your outlook on life.

QURESHI: Oyelowo says his role model is another actor, born in the Caribbean, who also became a star here.

OYELOWO: I call it the Sidney Poitier syndrome, in that I think the reason he achieved what he did the way he did at the time he did is because he grew up in a different society where he wasn't a minority. And so therefore, when he came to this country, he just couldn't understand the notion that everything on the plate wasn't his to eat. And he approached his career, he approached his ambitions, he approached his work in that way. And it was so undeniable that you just had to get out of his way. I think if you are brought up in a culture whereby that is not the case, you have a stance of combat. And that invariably means that you are spending more energy trying to bust through than be you.

QURESHI: Critics have raved about David Oyelowo's performance in "Selma," but the film has also been harshly criticized for taking liberties with its portrayal of the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson and King, shown here as confrontational and contentious.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

OYELOWO: (As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) We need your involvement here, Mr. President. We deserve your help as citizens of this country, citizens under attack.

TOM WILKINSON: (As President Lyndon Johnson) Now you listen to me. You listen to me. You're an activist. I'm a politician. You got one big issue. I got 101.

QURESHI: I asked David Oyelowo if this portrait of King that will be seen by so many people has a responsibility to history.

OYELOWO: My responsibility was to go and find who that man was spiritually, emotional, intellectually and historically. And I can stand by every choice I personally made. I also can stand by the choices the film made. But at the end of the day, it is an artistic interpretation.

QURESHI: Some believe that artistic interpretation cost the film Oscar nominations. I spoke with David Oyelowo before those nominations were announced last week, but he was quite candid about what he sees as Hollywood's enduring problem with diversity - the fact that films about black life are under a different kind of pressure and scrutiny.

OYELOWO: Everything you do has such an intense gaze upon it because the opportunities are so sparse, so you always feel this need to be all things to all men for their salvation. And what we don't get that you get if you are a white artist, you know, director, producer or even the audience is that, you know, from a white point of view, you have so much context for what it is to be a human being. You have good movies, bad movies, sci-fi, romantic comedies. You have historical dramas. You have silly movies. You have very important films. You have all these different options that mean that you don't have to kind of politicize or think about is this painful for people to watch? Is this edifying for people to - you know, you can just be an artist and put your voice out there.

QURESHI: So one of his next projects will be more personal. It's the story of two Nigerian lovers, crisscrossing from Africa to London and America. It's a big-screen adaptation of the award-winning novel "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adich. His co-star is Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o. Oyelowo says in light of "Selma's" success, he's happy to finally have the American credentials to get a film like "Americanah" off the ground.

OYELOWO: The fact of the matter is if Lupita Nyong'o didn't exist in terms of her notoriety, her talent and who she is, if I wasn't afforded the opportunity to play Dr. King, that film would not get made if we hadn't been given the opportunities we've been given to give filmmakers, financers, producers, writers the confidence to make the movie. And so that is smack in the middle of what I hope to do going forward.

QURESHI: And since his is a name we'll be hearing more, and probably mispronouncing, I asked him for a final clarification.

OYELOWO: The way to do it is O on both sides of yellow. So it's David Oyelowo.

QURESHI: And from NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi.

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